Managing health anxiety as we come out of lockdown
People who experience health anxiety may find it has intensified in recent weeks, as the UK gradually emerges from lockdown. It’s hardly surprising that we’re more focused on our health at the moment; after all, the attention of the entire world is currently centred on an illness, and caution and awareness are being actively encouraged by the government and the NHS.
A person who has health anxiety will have persistent worries about their health – and sometimes about somebody else’s health – and they might be convinced they’re seriously ill, even when they’re reassured that this isn’t the case. These worries and thoughts can become overwhelming, and interfere with everyday life.
It isn’t true that health anxiety is ‘all in your head’: the sensations and symptoms the individual is concerned about are real, though it’s likely the beliefs they have about the cause are unfounded. Feeling anxious is a normal and rational response to a threat, which is designed to keep us safe, but in someone with health anxiety this tends to be out of proportion.
The things people do to try and cope with their worries can sometimes make them worse – such as Googling symptoms, visiting GPs multiple times, or seeking the opinions of different friends, family members or medical professionals. Other people might check their temperature several times a day, or even count the number of times they cough! The prodding and poking and monitoring associated with tests can create stress in themselves, and any reassurance the results bring tends to be short-lived.
Right now, people with health anxiety might be hypervigilant, with an increased awareness of possible threats and on the constant lookout for things that may cause harm. We’re probably all more alert than we used to be about someone coughing in a shop, for example, or noticing if we feel hot.
The problem is, these behaviours can make you feel even more anxious, which can in turn trigger physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems or a racing heart. This can become a vicious cycle.
People with health anxiety tend to make assumptions and predictions – for example, someone with a headache may believe it’s a sign that they definitely have a brain tumour. Or they might believe that every unusual sensation or pain they feel must mean something is wrong, and they need to respond to it.
If this sounds familiar, challenging the underlying beliefs and fears with evidence can help you to get perspective, and break the vicious cycle. Scouring the internet for possible reasons for your symptoms won’t, so it’s a good idea to avoid doing this!
Try listing all of the other possible reasons that might be causing your symptoms. For example, if you have a headache, these could include stress, not drinking enough water, eating too much sugar, or looking at a computer screen for too long. Take a look at the list, and for each reason you’ve written down ask yourself “How likely is it really that this is the cause of my headache?”. Assign a % likelihood to each one.
Next, test out your beliefs with experiments! Look at the list of reasons again, and one by one try to address each of them. For instance, drink more water one day, take regular screen breaks the next day, and so on. Do this mindfully, noticing how you feel, the effect it has on your headache, and whether anything has changed.
Of course, it’s important to get checked out if you have any new or nagging symptoms that don’t get any better.
If health anxiety is having an impact on your daily life, you could try CBT. You can find out more about how CBT works here.